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Symphony chorus at its finest Sunday

11/12/2003                         By CLIFTON J. NOBLE JR., Music writer

SPRINGFIELD - Sacred Heart Church's soaring sanctuary echoed back the warm, glorious sound of the Springfield Symphony Chorus Sunday afternoon, as director Robert Rene Galvan led his 108 choristers, guest soprano Melissa Raymond, and pianist Nikki Stoia in "Music of the Night," a concert of romantic choral works.

Franz Schubert's cantata "Mirjams Siegesgesang" was the final and most substantial piece on the program. Franz Grillparzer's poem about the celebration in the Hebrew camp after Pharaoh and his pursuing army have been consumed by the Red Sea served as Schubert's inspiration for a super-dramatic sweep of heroic, stormy text-painting.

The piece embarked on a hair-raising harmonic journey, recalling the passage through the "crystal walls" of the sea, the caving in of "towers of water," and the fearsome, chromatic drowning of Pharaoh "down into the abyss, black like your heart."

The chorus made the "Siegesgesang" (victory song) sound like it was a lot of fun to sing. Even though it fell late in a demanding program, they threw their energy and enthusiasm into its swirling textures and evocative modulations, projecting memorable images even for those who arrived too late to obtain programs with texts and translations. Soloist Raymond riveted her listeners as the prophetess Mirjam, negotiating wild and wooly writing crowned with triumphant high Cs.

The concert opened with a grand performance of Mendelssohn's "Heilig," it's "Holies" descending through the ensemble by thirds, as if from heaven, and then rising to swell Sacred Heart's graceful arches, its final D Major chord reverberating for several seconds after Galvan's cutoff.

Beethoven's "Opferlied" also received a captivating reading, introducing Raymond's honeyed tone and elegant phrasing to the audience. The chorus incisively echoed the ebb and flow of the soloist's interpretation and Stoia provided gleaming pillars of pianistic support.

Two songs by Brahms followed "Waldesnacht," unaccompanied and cool with the chorus relishing the sound of all those haunting German "U" vowels, and "O Schoene Nacht" with its vivid musical depiction of gleaming moonlight, glimmering dew, and twittering nightingales.

In the latter work, the great distance between piano and chorus - some 50-60 feet - began to tell. Though the final cadence had closed the distance in pitch between them, there were moments when the respective harmonic worlds inhabited by piano and chorus were nearly a semitone apart.

Whether it was impossible or impractical to move the piano to its customary position in front of the chorus was unclear, but in "O Schoene Nacht," Faure's lovely "Cantique de Jean Racine," and Schubert's "Psalm 23" (for women's voices and piano), the removal of piano from singers was felt and heard.

Stoia did a superb job adjusting her dynamic and distinguishing Galvan's intentions from her remote perch far off to the chorus's left. Particularly noteworthy was her sinuous interpretation of the orchestration of Faure's inscrutable "Pavane."

Galvan's repertoire choices dovetailed auspiciously with his thorough sense of the heroic and romantic in 19th-century music and the talent and enthusiasm of his musicians to produce an engaging, entertaining presentation of great music. Verdi's "La vergine degli angeli," and "Va pensiero," in addition to Schumann's "Ziguenerleben," featuring a solo sextet drawn from the Chorus (Sylvia H. Starkie, Kristine M. Stack, Arlana Smith, Frank H. Twyeffort III, Paul A. Knaplund, and Rufus Cushman) rounded out the program.

From The Republican, November 12, 2003